Diaghilev and death in Venice

Diaghilev found the right city for his death.

Venice is theatre with its palazzi along the Grand Canal representing the set. The canal, a mirror for the facades, has its own mirror image – one of decay, death and dilapidation.

Before I visited Diaghilev’s grave, I read Peter Ackroyd’s book, Venice, Pure City, in which he writes so eloquently of the cult of death in Venice.

Ackroyd writes that “the perpetual sound of bells is a rehearsal for death…to die in a grand Venetian house, as did Wagner and Browning, is to inhabit a vast funerary monument without the expense of building one”.

He goes on to quote Henry James who said Venice was the most beautiful sepulchre in the world, where the past has been “laid to rest with such tenderness, such a sadness of resignation”.

Last Saturday, approaching the cemetery island of St Michele in the Venice lagoon, the heavily laden boat, on its way to Murano, seemed to sink further and further into the jade green water.

The journey took more than half an hour from St Marco.

Time slowed down and my mind drifted to a possible watery end. How long, I wondered, did it take Diaghilev’s funeral gondola to reach St Michele in 1929.

Perhaps they first took the body into the church of St Michele, completed four centuries before the cemetery itself was built in the 19th century.

As Ackroyd writes, the church is like a whitened sepulchre guarding the site.

During my visit, no more than 20 people were on the island, walking through row upon row of marble gravestones, set into white walls, each with its bouquet of fake flowers and often with a photo of the departed.

In the Greek section, lies Diaghilev, who with Igor Stravinsky – 11 graves to his left – has been given special dispensation.

The remains of both men remain, unlike many others who are only passing through. After a number of years, their skeletons are removed to another island of bones, S. Ariano.

The graves of St Michele lie among rows of cypresses.

Along a short pathway within the Greek enclave, Diaghilev’s grave rests against a plain brick wall.

The dome of the grave was familiar to me through photographs and I hoped – wondered – if ballet shoes would be there, as they are sometimes on the grave of Marie Taglioni in Paris.

They were – two pairs of pointe shoes and one miniature point shoe lying next to a faded photo of Diaghilev in a modest frame.

Pilgrimage ended, I took the photos you see here then walked among the corridors of graves to reach the church, again almost deserted but for a few on the pilgrimage and an artist who was sketching the view from within the church courtyard.

The next boat arrived, again burdened with tourists, on its way from Venice to Murano, where the locals wait by their shopfronts jammed with glass souvenirs.

From there, we travelled on to the lace making island of Burano, then Torcello, the latter a place of great peace.

The Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta in Torcello is ancient, with one wall covered with a painting showing Christ, St Peter, a scramble of many to get into heaven, the devil below, and at the lowest level, rows of illustrated skulls from which worms wriggle.

The horror of that form of life below made Diaghilev’s last resting place seem tranquil, safe and natural.

As Ackroyd has written, decay and dissolution are part of the unique enchantment of Venice. “They are part of the sweet melancholy of transience. They are reminiscent of the human frame as it moves toward the tomb”.

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